The #1 Question Not To Ask a Daoist
Once, in a temple in rural China, I saw a tourist ask an old Daoist his age. The old Daoist did not answer. The tourist chased after him and repeated the question. The old Daoist pointed at a tall tree that was nearby and responded, “I’m as old as that tree”.
Typically, Daoists to not like to talk about their age.
There is a saying about Chinese religions “Don’t talk about the Daoist’s age and don’t talk about the Buddhist’s last name” (道不言寿, 佛不言姓). When Buddhist monks and nuns take their vows they all adopt the last name Shi (释), the name of the Shakyamuni Buddha. So, there is no need to ask their last name. In Daoism, we do not change our last name. Instead, we are given a new first name. My family name is Zhou (周). When I was born, my parents named me Hongliang (红亮) which means “red moon”. When they brought me to Wudang Mountain to train martial arts, they changed it to Guowei (国伟) which means “great nation”. Political names like “protecting the country” and “learning from the people” were still common in China at that time. Some people on Wudang Mountain who met me when I was a young boy still call me that name. When I lived as a wandering monk, I used the name Xuanyun (玄云) meaning “mysterious cloud” which was the only name I chose myself. Actually, the name I was given in the Daoist Dragon Gate lineage is Xinghao (信浩). The first character (信) shows my generation in the lineage. The second character (浩) means “vast”.
There is another saying about Daoism:
When you look at the characters in this saying one by one they are:
Mountain － middle – without －60 year cycle – pot －middle － age － long
The first half of the saying describes life in a Daoist temple, living in the mountains, and outside of time. The ancient Chinese measured time using a 60-year cycle, naming the years after the 12 zodiac animals and the 5 elements. When living in a hermitage, or in a temple, it is very easy to lose track of time. Sunrise follows sunset. The seasons turn and the years slip by unnoticed.
The second part of the saying describes Daoist practice. “Pot” (壶) usually means a teapot (茶壶) or the old fashioned pots that were used to hold alcohol (酒壶). Here, the “pot” is a metaphor for the human body. Often in Daoism, the body is described as a container, such as a pot or a crucible. Inside this container, we refine the energies of the body, the spirit, vitality, and essences (精气神) with the goal of prolonging our lifespan and causing spiritual transformation. The final few characters in the saying explain the result of the practice, which is a long life.
As a whole, the saying can be translated as:
In the mountains
Outside of time
Practicing the internal
The years will be long
This is why it is considered pointless to ask a Daoist their age. It is possible they have forgotten. Such things are sometimes left behind.